At the height of the pandemic in March 2020, a month during which the novel coronavirus took over 4,000 lives in the U.S. alone, Freya Bishop led a Zoom call from inside her Michigan home.
It wasn’t just any call, however. Bishop, a genial redhead who grew up in the historically rich city of Philadelphia on America’s East Coast, is a death midwife. On the other end of the call were the family members of a woman in her 80s who had contracted COVID-19 and, due to serious health complications, would likely not make it.
Unable to visit her in the hospital, the woman’s grandchildren and close relatives prepared to say goodbye with Bishop as their guide. Together, they lit candles, read scriptures from the Bible and sang their grandmother’s favorite songs.
“With [COVID-19], there are so many situations where you can’t be with your loved ones as they pass,” Bishop says. As many hospitals have expanded their visitation guidelines, it’s not rare for COVID-19 patients to die in isolation. Holding what Bishop refers to as a “virtual vigil” is one way to cope with the feelings of grief and mourning that accompany death.
“Having everyone gather together with the same intention in mind is a very powerful experience,” Bishop adds.
What is a death midwife?
Also known as a death doula (Greek for “female servant”), a death midwife is a person who assists in the dying process.
“We serve the community by helping families cope [and] process death, grief and mourning,” Bishop explains. “It is not uncommon for a death midwife to be in the room with someone passing away. We teach the family to not be afraid of death — that death is to be celebrated and honored.”
Interest in death midwifery has spiked in recent years, with nonprofit organizations like The International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) aiming to establish a professional-level standard for the field. Since 2015, INELDA’s instructors have trained more than 2,000 people in “end of life doula care,” according to its website. The demand for such training programs has gone up since the start of the pandemic.
“As a death midwife, I am a caretaker who specializes in end-of-life care,” Bishop says. Sitting vigil, or being in the room with the dying while they are surrounded by family members, is a key part of Bishop’s practice. “I act as a coach,” she explains. Oftentimes, Bishop will encourage family members to touch and speak with those who are dying, a process she describes as “death bed etiquette.”
“[Death] can be a very awkward and overwhelming experience,” Bishop says. To further educate families on death and midwifery, the Philly-native is currently working on two books: “The Art of Dying With Dignity” and “The Mourning Chronicle.”
‘A magickal practitioner who wears many hats’
For Bishop, who grew up in a Catholic household and participated in funerals from a young age, death was always a subject of curiosity rather than fear. She recalls a particularly memorable experience as the cross bearer at a funeral when she was just 10 years old.
“The energy of the funeral was just so powerful,” Bishop says. “I wanted to devote my life to serving the dead.”
In addition to being a death midwife, Bishop is a certified Reiki Master Teacher. Commonly referred to as “energy healing,” Reiki is a form of alternative therapy that is associated with benefits such as reducing stress and anxiety, as well as treating chronic pain. In light of social distancing measures, “distance Reiki” sessions, or sessions carried out virtually rather than in person, are becoming more commonplace.
“I am a magickal practitioner who wears many hats,” says Bishop, who also identifies as a witch and recently presented a lecture at the online conference Witchcon about her practice as a death midwife and psychic medium.
On her Instagram account (@ef_bishop), Bishop regularly hosts live sessions on topics such as grief, mourning and death through a series dubbed “The Mourning Chronicles.” She also leads a book club that meets monthly on Zoom to discuss readings about witchcraft.
“This book club delivers the opportunity to ‘come out of the broom closet’ and be yourself with like-minded practitioners,” Bishop says. The club is free to the public and currently accepting new members.
For more information, follow Bishop on social media or contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bishop’s online services are available to people in both the U.S. and Japan.
This article is an updated version of a previous article on Metropolis which was found to have featured inaccurate information and has since been removed.
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